Saturday, November 30, 2013

creative nonfiction, retooled in a guise of storytelling, or maybe poetry

Who hasn't been inspired by the historic photographs of stoic, and enduring men and women, poor by birthright, and struggling to survive the additional economic calamities of the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl.  Many Americans can recall the famous photograph, taken by Dorothea Lange, showing a migrant mother of two children in a camp for the homeless during the Great Depression.   Another famous photographer known for his work in the that era was Walker Evans, chosen as the partner of a writer, James Agee, in a reporting team sent by Fortune magazine in 1936 to document the living conditions of cotton tenant farmers in the Deep South.

A resulting article was written by Agee about the lives of the three farm families he observed during the two months in which he lived with one of the families, but his article was never published by Fortune.  No reason was given by the magazine.  It was fairly long, about 30,000 words, but tabling the article was perhaps in no small measure owing to the desperate, marginal living conditions documented by Agee for those poverty stricken families.  The sometimes overwrought language, and often scandalous opinions written by Agee on the character of the tenant farmer, or sharecropper, families, could presumably have been reworked by his editors, but perhaps the editors of a magazine extolling the noble virtues of capitalism and free market enterprise for achieving an upward mobility of workers might have seen in the article some powerful evidence to the contrary.

Agee was fresh out of Harvard when he went to work for the magazine, and so impressed his bosses with his work over the next four years that he was chosen to do the feature story on the lives of the cotton tenants, in the summer of 1936.  There seems little doubt from his original manuscript that his heart was with the plight of the tenant farmer, though his point-of-view (POV) as a writer seemed that of the omniscient narrator, imparting thoughts and motivations of individuals that were at best subjective, and often at a scandalous effect.  He must have known that if his story was published much of what he told might be seen as a sort of betrayal by those people he had lived among. 

The publisher released the original manuscript back to Agee after declining to publish it.  Agee worked the raw material for another several years and he published a novel from it in 1941, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," (an ironic title, taken from Ecclesiasticus).  It sold only 600 copies when first published, but became a bestseller when it was reissued in 1960.  

The typescript for the article written for Fortune was found by his daughter recently while going through her father's effects in the house he left to her. The rediscovered material was published in May, 2013, as "Cotton Tenants: Three Families," with some selected photographs taken by Walker Evans during their field assignment.   Follow-ups of the story told in "Famous Men," were done by other reporters in July, and August, of 1986, fifty years after Agee and Evans did their original field work.  The book that resulted, "And Their Children After Them," by David Maharidge and Michael Williamson, won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1990.  Of the surviving cotton tenant adults, and their children, some were offended by their story as told in "Famous Men," and others weren't.  In any case Agee died of alcoholism in 1955, at age 45, long before he might have had to face up to any in the tenant families who felt betrayed.  As one of the tenant families daughters told in her journal, speaking of Agee's book,

There's a whole lot in there that's true, and a whole lot that isn't true.  He was a mess.  My goodness, I could turn around and write a book on him. 

The story, the descriptions, and the photographs of "Cotton Tenants: Three Families," are mesmerizing, though some of Agee's subjective assessments and over-the-top language jar my own sense for a truer and more sympathetic telling of a then crushing way of life.  I spent some boyhood summer vacations in the late forties on cotton farms in the Deep South, and though times had changed dramatically by then--cotton farming was already disappearing as an important economic activity in the region--the plain cultural life of country folks, removed now from the penury of marginal existence imposed and maintained by the old tenancy or sharecropping system, held out many things to admire.  Some still ate biscuits and gravy with eye-watering salt pork for breakfast, with chicory coffee, and a crumbled, coarse corn bread in fresh-churned buttermilk eaten from a goblet with a spoon for an evening meal, and I came to enjoy such fare.  Except maybe the salt pork.  You can describe the tenant's diet as a greasy, fat-laden mess, destroying everyone's teeth, as Agee does, or you might choose to point out some similarities to the modern, healthy, Atkins high fat diet.  I needed a little levity here after the heavy sledding through Agee's hard-edged prose.

A good review of "Cotton Tenants: Three Families," appears in the Nov. 7, 2013 issue of NY Review of Books, written by Ian Frazier.

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